Bordeaux Bankers

  • Thursday 7 April 2005

Bordeaux is often labelled exclusive and expensive. But when we asked six experts to let us in on their best value châteaux (no crus classés allowed), we were spoilt for choice. Here we profile the top 50 names for great, affordable drinking. Additional research by Melissa Zehnder.

Bordeaux is a region set in its ways. The various classifications create brands, rather than ‘crus’ in the Burgundian sense, while the merchants and top châteaux dominate through en primeur sales.

Bordeaux is naturally conservative and deeply concerned with the status quo. It is not surprising, therefore, to find a large majority of Decanter’s Top Value for Money clarets coming from the Left Bank. Right Bank châteaux are still considered by some to be upstarts.

Of course, the established crus bourgeois, with the newly appointed exceptionnels selling for more than the odd cru classé, are good vintage after vintage, as are the best of the second wines, but they have been around for ages and are not that cheap any more. But good value is also to be found in Pessac-Léognan, where the non-classified wines are often half the price of their superiors. In my view, while reliable wines are to be found on the Left Bank, exciting ones are on the Right, and I would especially look for value in the five Côtes appellations – Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Bourg, Premières Côtes de Bordeaux, Côtes de Francs and Côtes de Castillon.

These appellations, the last two only promoted from Bordeaux Supérieur in the last few years, fit into the ‘must try hard to succeed’ category. Leading examples are Châteaux Falfas (Bourg), Segonzac (Blaye), Lezongars (Premières Côtes), Puygueraud (Francs) and d’Aiguilhe (Castillon), while new stars appear every year.

The proximity of Côtes de Francs and Castillon to St-Emilion has seen investment from this quarter, which is the key to modernising and upgrading Bordeaux. Reputations are being made, but there are no classified laurels to rest on and prices are reasonable to attract attention. The search for value can start here.

By Steven Spurrier

1= Château Potensac

Médoc, cru bourgeois exceptionnel

Chateau Potensac was the only Médoc cru bourgeois to be made an exceptionnel in 2003 (of nine wines in total). Co-owned by the Delons of Léoville-Las-Cases, Potensac made only 50 tonnes in its early years. It is now the largest and most high profile estate in the northern Médoc.

On taking over in the mid-1970s, Michel Delon transformed a local deconsecrated church into the barrel cellar, and constructed a brand new cuvier, with stainless steel fermentation vats. The vines are grouped together in one block, on the highest and most gravelly of its soils, where all grapes are hand picked, after the same team has performed the task at Léoville-Las-Cases.

The wait means that the grapes are often riper than at surrounding properties – consequently, this is a full, firm, wine. Often austere, it has a degree of rusticity.

£12.04 (2003); Aly. £10 (2001); BBR

‘You’ve got to get up early to outdo a Delon, and that’s as true for this bourgeois Médoc as for Léoville-Las-Cases. Depth, density, classicism and age-worthiness: Pontensac has them all.‘

Andrew Jefford

‘A classic, cedary Médoc for medium-term ageing.’

Steven Spurrier

1= Château d’Aiguilhe

Côtes de Castillon

Chateau d’Aiguilhe is an impressive sight, with its 12th-century ruins, futuristic cellars and river views. In 1999, the estate was purchased from its Catalan owners by Stephan von Neipperg, owner of St-Emilion’s Château Canon-La-Gaffelière and also Clos de L’Oratoire.

D’Aiguilhe is planted mainly to Merlot, with a small fraction of Cabernet Franc. Stéphane Derenoncourt keeps yields low and ages the wines in 80% new oak. The second wine, Seigneurs d’Aiguilhe, is also fantastic value.

£11.73–14.20 (2003); Aly, BBR, F&R

‘Perhaps the front runner in the up-and-coming Castillon area, and another wine with the Derenoncourt hand at the tiller. Balanced, tasty wines with great purity and class. The property’s relatively large size (42ha) keeps prices reasonable.’

Andrew Jefford

‘Aiguilhe is still good value although prices have risen lately. It’s a magnificent property located on Castillon’s limestone plateau that has been

turned around by Stephan von Neipperg.

It’s now a wine of power, elegance and intensity that needs 5–6 years’ age.’

James Lawther MW

3= Château

La Tour-de-By

Médoc, cru bourgeois supérieur

Another beautiful estate, this time overlooking the Gironde estuary, La Tour-de-By’s signature landmark is the lighthouse tower, built in 1825 for the hamlet of By.

The three-storey château itself was built in 1876 and the estate’s owner Marc Pagès resides there. The vines are planted on relatively high gravelly soil for a low-lying region.

Harvested by machine, all the wine is matured in cask for 14 months, partly in 20–25% new barrels. The property produces around 40,000 cases a year.

£10.99 (1999); NLW

‘Since taking over the vineyard in 1965, Marc Pagès has produced one of the most consistent wines in this appellation. The vineyard site overlooking the river is excellent and the wines age well, as is attested even now by the years of the 1980s. The style is for balanced, finely scented wines with sappy fruit and elegance, and the value is exceptional.’

David Peppercorn MW

‘For a long time the Pagès family has made one of the best and most consistent crus bourgeois from a pronounced gravel mound in the northern extremes of the Médoc. Vividly tasty blackcurrant fruit (two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon), barely noticeable oak, grippy without being coarse and with marked pebbly aromas behind the fruit.’

Michael Schuster

3= Château Sociando-Mallet

Haut-Médoc

By the time Jean Gautreau, a négociant from Lesparre, purchased the 5ha of vineyards in 1969, the formerly proud St-Seurin estate had become a run-down château, its status maligned by several ownership changes.

Gautreau transformed the estate, which now stretches to 72ha. The château’s once dilapidated buildings have been restored and there is a completely new cellar. Grapes are hand harvested and the wine can mature in up to 100% new oak.

£20–21.42 (2003); BBR, F&R

‘When you stand in the vineyard, high above the Gironde, you understand why this is such an outstanding site. One thinks of Montrose and Latour. Here, Jean Gautreau has created a grand cru to rival the best. The wonderful chewy textures, with their ripe, sweet fruit, redolent of liquorice, chocolate and black berries, demonstrate the originality and greatness of these wines. This is a cru to buy en primeur and age, but it is also very accessible – the 1996 is now drinking very well.’

David Peppercorn MW

‘Simply stunning and up to the level of a really good classified growth. The depth of flavour and breed are remarkable.’

Serena Sutcliffe MW

3= Château

Roc de Cambes

Côtes de Bourg

Francois Mitjaville bought the 14ha Roc de Cambes in 1988. Just north of Bourg, the soil, on a slope facing the Gironde, resembles the côtes of St-Emilion. Yields are kept low and the wine is made with 50% new oak.

£24.65; F&R

‘Scrumptious stuff from François Mitjaville. Defies the appellation with its luscious richness.’

Serena Sutcliffe MW

‘The greatest wine of the Côtes de Bourg – and probably the finest outside the leading Bordeaux appellations. Rich, succulent and marvellously hedonistic.’

David Peppercorn MW

3= Château

Haut-Chaigneau

Lalande de Pomerol

Haut-Chaigneau is owned by André and Jeanine Chatonnet. Their son Pascal has been responsible for the 21ha estate’s augmented reputation since the mid 1990s, when he began producing the second wine, Château La Sergue, from a 5ha block.

£8.62 (2003); F&R

‘The gifted oenologist Pascal Chatonnet’s super wine has banished the tendency to rusticity that can afflict the appellation.’

Serena Sutcliffe MW

‘Pascal Chatonnet is one of the most interesting and independent of the new generation of Left Bank oenologues, and the way he develops the fruit, richness and charm of the wines, while retaining their balance, ensures this is a wine to enjoy rather than a new wave blockbuster.’

David Peppercorn MW

7= Château Charmail

Haut-Médoc, cru bourgeois supérieur

Chateau Charmail was born initially from one man’s dream to own a vineyard. A Burgundian Monsieur Laly bought and restored the vineyard and 19th-century château in 1970.

In 1981, Roger Sèze, owner of Château Mayne-Vieil in Fronsac, took over the entire property, which is located a stone’s throw from Sociando-Mallet, west of St-Seurin-de-Cadourne. The 22ha plot is 50% Merlot, and the wine is matured in 25% new oak.

J&B (call for details)

‘Plenty of flesh for the northern Médoc – richly fruity, nicely textured clarets which drink well young, but will age attractively too. A rewardingly consistent estate.’

Michael Schuster

7= Château Pibran

Pauillac, cru bourgeois supérieur

The 9ha of Château Pibran are on the high plateau north-east of Pauillac, just south of Château Pontet-Canet. It lies close to the Chenal de Gaer, a little stream which divides Pauillac in two.

The Gauthier-Villa family sold the property to AXA Millésimes in 1987, the same year the insurance group took over Château Pichon-Longueville. Jean-Michel Cazes looks after production of around 4,000 cases a year.

£13.49; F&R. £11.25 in bond (2003); J&B

‘The technical and financial weight of AXA Millésimes have turned this into a consistently good wine – firm, textured and typically Paulliac, for drinking at 5–10 years. And still at a reasonable price.’

James Lawther MW

7= Château Puygueraud

Côtes de Francs

Chateau Puygueraud was initially used as a cattle farm by Georges Thienpont when he arrived in Côtes de Francs in 1946. Thirty years later, Thienpont planted vines on the 32ha estate, and with his son Nicolas’ assistance, made his first vintage in 1983. His success soon attracted other investors to the region.

Thienpont died in 1997, and a special cuvée, labelled ‘Georges’ was launched in 2000. Nicolas Thienpont manages the estate today, along with St-Emilion grands crus classés Bellevue, Larcis Ducasse and Pavie Macquin.

£7.81; F&R

‘This is still the reference in the Côtes de Francs and the Thienpont family is still the driving force behind the appellation. The wine generally needs five or six years to develop, rarely disappoints and ages well.’

James Lawther MW

10= Château

Le Crock

St-Estèphe, cru bourgeois supérieur

With its 1820s château, park, lake and swans, Le Crock is a magnificent sight. In 1903, the estate was sold to the Cuveliers, a firm of négociants in northern France who later acquired Château Léoville-Poyferré. The quality of Le Crock’s wines showed a marked improvement when Didier Cuvelier took over the management in the 1970s.

All 32ha are hand harvested, with production overseen by Michel Rolland.

£5.25 (half-bottle 2003); BBR

‘One of a cluster of promising sites between the grandeur of Cos and Montrose. The wine shows St-Estèphe substance mastered with unusual subtlety and restraint.’

Andrew Jefford

10= Château Meyney

St-Estèphe, cru bourgeois supérieur

Meyney is set north of Château Montrose, overlooking the Gironde estuary. The estate dates back to 1662 when it was a monastery. It retains an ecclesiastical air, notably in its grand courtyard and cloisterish chai.

After World War I, Château Meyney came under the ownership of Désiré Cordier, a year after she acquired Château Talbot. Meyney has since passed to Domaines Cordier.

The 500ha property produces 30,000 cases a year, fermented in glass-lined vats and aged for 15 months in oak barrels, 30% new oak.

£12.73 (2003); Aly. £10 (2002); BBR

‘There aren’t many crus bourgeois with terroir of the same quality of Meyney in St-Estèphe: it’s a kind of northern twin to Montrose on a wonderful knoll of gravel over blue clay which is perfect for hot vintages (like 2003). At its best, classic St-Estèphe: dense, earthy, close-textured, smouldering and long-lived.’

Andrew Jefford

10= Château Phélan-Ségur

St-Estèphe, cru bourgeois exceptionnel

One of the most important properties in St-Estèphe today, Phélan-Ségur is situated between the road and the river, and shares a stretch of gravelly terroir with Châteaux Montrose and Meyney.

Bernard Phélan, supposedly of Irish descent, founded the estate in the early 19th century. It later landed in the hands of the Delon family in 1924 and in 1986 they sold it to Xavier Gardinier.

The 70ha property produces an average of 25,000 cases of wine, aged in 40% new oak.

£15.54; F&R

‘Since 1996, Thierry Gardinier has taken this fine cru on to another level. The vineyard is beautifully placed, with a similar exposition to Montrose. Its wines are powerful and full of vitality and originality.’

David Peppercorn MW

10= Château Chasse-Spleen

Moulis, cru bourgeois exceptionnel

The estate formerly known as Château Grand-Poujeaux was split into Châteaux Chasse Spleen and Gressier-Grand-Poujeaux in the 1860s.

Before she died in 1992, Bernadette Villar was responsible for giving the château a much-needed facelift by renovating the cellars, draining the vineyard and introducing a more rigorous selection. Her daughters Clare and Céline have continued in this vein.

The 107ha estate produces more than 23,000 cases a year.

£11.50–14.96; BBR, F&R

‘I love the rich, chewy wines of Listrac and Moulis, and over the last decade this well-sited property in the best part of Moulis has been at the top of its game with a series of enduring yet fragrant wines.’

Andrew Jefford

10= Château Poujeaux

Moulis, cru bourgeois exceptionnel

Poujeaux enjoyed a rich history of ownership prior to the 20th century, being among the properties owned by both Châteaux Latour and Beychevelle. Subsequent squabbles saw the estate split into three, and it took the Theil family – today’s owners – the best part of 40 years to put it back to its original 55ha.

£11.50–13.20 (2003); BBR, F&R

‘To call Poujeaux the king of Moulis is uncontroversial, though this appellation has made such strides recently that the Theil family cannot afford to be complacent. Substantial, chewy, dense wine ready to deliver a decade or more of satisfaction.’

Andrew Jefford

10= Château Monbrison

Margaux, cru bourgeois supérieur

Monbrison, once owned by its neighbour, Château d’Arsac, has distant American connections, reflected in the richness of its wines. The estate changed ownership serveral times before American Robert Meacham Davis purchased it after World War I. His youngest daughter, Elizabeth, took over and replanted the derelict 13ha vineyard after World War II. Her son, Jean–Luc Vonderhoyden, supervised winemaking until he died of leukemia in 1992. His brother, Laurent, has since taken over.

£11.50 (2003); BBR

‘Laurent Vonderhoyden is making superb wines here, as seen when it came out top at a blind tasting in Hong Kong of the bourgeois growths.’

Serena Sutcliffe MW

10= Château

Les Trois Croix

Fronsac

Les Trois Croix lies at one of the highest points on the Fronsac plateau, 80m above sea level. The Léon family acquired the estate in 1995 and added a barrel cellar. The property is managed by Patrick Léon, who has just retired after a lifetime at Mouton-Rothschild.

£9.38; F&R

‘Ripe and polished, with superb depth of Fronsac fruit, this is a very classy wine.’

Steven Spurrier

17= Château Sénéjac

Haut-Médoc, cru bourgeois supérieur

This charming chateau was bought by the de Guigné family in 1860. It enjoyed a good reputation during the pre-phylloxera years but a general lack of attention and investment thereafter led to its decline.

In 1973, Charles de Guigné returned from San Francisco, where the family had moved. He took up residence and set about the restoration of the property, largely achieved via New Zealand winemaker Janny Bailey-Dobson, now departed. In 1999, the château was sold to Thierry and Nancy Rustmann, owners of the St-Julien classified growth, Talbot.

£6.46 (2003); F&R

‘Deeply coloured and perfumed wines, but classically austere and tannic’

David Peppercorn MW

17= Château

Haut-Marbuzet

St-Estèphe, cru bourgeois exceptionnel

The driving force behind Château Haut-Marbuzet’s success is father-and-son team Hervé and Henri Dubosq. From a meagre plot of 6ha bought in 1952, Hervé Dubosq managed to accumulate small properties around the village of Marbuzet. Today, the surface area under vine totals 58ha.

Henri Dubosq, who also runs the neighbouring Château Chambert-Marbuzet, introduced the use of 100% new oak in 1970. The property’s second label is Château MacCarthy.

£19.58 (2003); Aly.

£9.58 (2002 in bond); J&B

‘This is an unusually rich, exotic and voluptuous St-Estèphe made with ample Merlot (usually around half the blend), 100% new wood and limitless ambition by proprietor Henri Dubosq.’

Andrew Jefford

19= Château Loudenne

Médoc, cru bourgeois supérieur

Chateau Loudenne is one of the few properties in the Médoc or Haut-Médoc to sit alongside the estuary, affording Loudenne a breathtaking view of the Gironde.

Owned by Jean-Paul Lafragette, the vineyard at Loudenne covers over 62ha, including a smattering of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. All grapes are machine harvested. The second wines include Les Tours de Loudenne and Pavillon de Loudenne.

£8.50–10.95 (2001); Div, Evy, J&B

‘Always a UK favourite from the northern Medoc due to Gilbey ownership, now in more youthful hands and better than ever.’

Steven Spurrier

19= Château

Rollan de By

Médoc, cru bourgeois supérieur

When Jean Guyon first bought Château Rollan de By in 1989, the property extended to only 2ha. Under Guyon’s guidance, Rollan de By now has close to 70ha under production.

Guyon designed his own cellar, which has a capacity of 1,400 barrels. All wines go through 12 months of maturation in 100% new French oak barrels.

Rollan de By’s other wines include Châteaux Haut-Condissas and Tour-Seran. The former has received a good deal of praise since its first vintage back in 1995.

£8.62 (2003); F&R

‘One of the surprises at Decanter's Fine Wine Encounter last year, here is a modern Médoc, bursting with fruit yet classically structured.’

Steven Spurrier

19= Château Labégorce-Zédé

Margaux, cru bourgeois exceptionnel

Chateau Labegorce-Zede is not to be confused with Château Labégorce, even though they once formed a single property back in the 14th century.

After passing through many different families, the estate was bought by Algerian Jean Battesti in 1961. In 1979, after doubling the size of the vineyard and renovating the cellar, Battesti, returning to Algeria, sold the property to the Thienpont family.

Luc Thienpont is the estate’s current manager. The Thienponts’ impressive portfolio includes the celebrated Château Le Pin in Pomerol.

Labégorce-Zédé was among the nine properties designated cru bourgeois exceptionnel in 2003.

£13.98; F&R, J&B

‘Luc Thienpont’s carefully crafted wine is absolutely true to the Margaux ideal of delicacy and finesse, ageing steadily to a subtle, nuanced and harmonious maturity.’

Andrew Jefford

19= Château Lezongars

Premières Côtes de Bordeaux

Bought by the Iles family in 1998, the charming, square villa of Château Lezongars is home to a 40ha estate. producing mainly clarets, and a little dry white.

As advisor, Jean-Luc Thunevin has helped to improve the wines’ quality. The vineyard is harvested both by machine and by hand, and ageing takes place in both tank and vat. Wines age for at least 18 months in 100% new oak. Overseeing the winemaking and viticulture at Lezongars is Samuel Mestre, while Michael Puzio is the chateau’s consultant. Lezongars’ second wine is Château de Roques.

£10.95 (2001); BBR

‘Under the Iles family’s stewardship, Lezongars (especially top cuvée l’Enclos) is now a name to watch for generous, juicy reds and surprisingly classy dry whites.’

Andrew Jefford

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